Sunday, July 31, 2016

Jason Bourne

Forty years ago, I saw a film by Jonas Mekas, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.  The movie consisted of tiny snippets of super 8 film edited together to make a dizzying montage -- faces, bits of weather, parties, buildings, everything cut together as mere glimpses, each picture passing in the blink of an eye.  I recall that the film was interesting at first, but, ultimately, exhausting and tedious:  the eidetic (remembered) image impressed upon the eye conflicted with each new transient image and, ultimately, my recollection of the film is that of a chaos, a cloud of impressions never settling into any thematic or narrative coherence.  Paul Greengrass' big-budget action film, Jason Bourne, applies Mekas' technique to a violent international thriller.  For a half-hour or so, the film is grimly effective.  But, in the end, the picture is merely exhausting and mind-numbingly repetitive. 


Everything in Jason Bourne proceeds at a hysterical, helter-skelter, breakneck speed.  Greengrass is credited as director but, in fact, the film's most noteworthy achievement is Christoper Rouse's editing -- Rouse actually manages to develop something that periodically looks like a narrative from this vortex of quarter-second and half-second shots.  Although the movie's action sequences are just blurs of action, a fist-fight comprised of sixty or seventy separate shots, the audience has an impression, faint and imperfect, but, nonetheless, an impression of what is going on -- of course, the standard action-movie pleasures of tracking graceful action across an articulated landscape or background are entirely absent in this movie, but you can figure out approximately what is happening.  The beauties of choreographed action sequences are not only withheld by this style of film-making but, also, most of the other pleasures that a suspense thriller offers:  there's no acting since a performance atomized into a thousand half-second shots doesn't require anything but posing; the dialogue is sub-literate when you can hear it and there is nothing resembling suspense:  the audience doesn't have time to catch its breath let alone develop any empathy for the characters.  Near the end of the film, Jason Bourne encounters his nemesis, Tommy Lee Jones -- for an instant, the frenetic cutting slows to, maybe, a shot every two seconds. In one of those two second images, the camera portentously moves forward pulling close to Tommy Lee Jones' haggard features -- in the context of all of this chaotic, half-second imagery (without any camera motion other than the wobble of the hand-held camera), the sudden zoom or dolly inward to Jones' face feels as archaic as an image from an early silent film:  for an instant, we feel like we are in a conventional movie and, suddenly, the banality and aggressive idiocy of the whole enterprise breaks through the cocoon of the picture's wall-to-wall action. 


Jason Bourne is an elaborate chase movie from first frame to last.  The problem is that the chase just keeps getting repeated.  The bad guys and Jason Bourne (with his doomed female helper) first convene for a chase through Athens -- this is the best sequence in the film because the audience has not yet been sated by the non-stop action.  Bourne and the bad guy, Vincent Cassel, zoom around in the Greek capitol where everyone is throwing Molotov cocktails off rooftops -- the whole thing is a pyromaniac's delight and fairly exciting.  The characters, next, get together to reprise their first chase in Berlin -- this is just more of the same without the streetfighting and bonfires.  Then, the female lead persuades her boss, Tommy Lee Jones, that she needs to meet face-to-face with Bourne in London -- so she joins the bad guys, their henchmen, the corrupt CIA officials, and Jason Bourne for a chase through that city.  Again, it's just more of the same.  The whole party, then, adjourns to Las Vegas, where Tommy Lee Jones and his bodyguard now join the conclave and everything just repeats in that city.  After Tommy Lee Jones gets killed, there's a wholly pointless coda involving a high-speed chase through Las Vegas that makes no sense and, then, a brutal fist-fight in which the hero gets a rubber band twisted around his neck before killing his adversary, somehow, with what looks like a large paper-clip.  By this point, the audience has long since ceased to care about who is killing whom.  Throughout the picture, I kept worrying about when the characters had time to visit the rest-room -- although Bourne slaughters a few bad guys in a toilet somewhere no one seems to have time to even urinate in this festival of slaughter.  People are continuously sending one another texts to the effect of "Let's meet at XYZ place in ten minutes" -- a location always at least fifteen minute hike (five minute high-speed chase) away.  I kept hoping someone would say:  "I have to go to the bathroom first -- can we make it twenty minutes?"  In one scene, Bourne gets off a plane at Berlin, takes a cab, and goes to a shabby, industrial looking neighborhood -- it's about a two minutes scene rendered cubistically into 45 shots or more:  fragmentary glimpses of street people, odd images partly occluded by poles as if someone were spying on the action, dizzying POV images, street vistas from cranes, shots taken from street surveillance cameras, jagged handheld tracking shots.  The episode delivers a hysterical charge, but, in effect, it's completely meaningless -- we don't need one shot, let alone 45 to get Bourne from the airport downtown; the director could have just cut from the airport to Bourne entering the Berlin warehouse where the next fight will occur.  Somehow, the film manages to seem both overstuffed with action, yet, also packed with entirely meaningless padding. 


The hero is played by either Brad Pitt or Matt Damon -- I can't recall which. 

Uomini Contro (Many Wars Ago)

Uomini Contro (1970) is a singularly uncompromising war picture directed by the great Italian film maker Francesco Rosi.  In the third film in his oeuvre released in 1971, Salvatore Giuliani, Rosi demonstrated his gift for staging scenes involving realistic and appalling violence -- the attack on the May Day celebration in the high mountains of Sicily is a highlight in that film and, indeed, so dramatic that it threatens to overwhelm the legal and procedural concerns of the rest of the movie.  Uomini Contro released in this country as Many Wars Ago is a documentary-like essay on the effects of protracted trench warfare on its combatants.  For many people, the film has proved to be essentially unwatchable -- the picture documents a nightmarish stalemate in which a psychotic general continually orders his men into suicidal attacks on entrenched enemy machine guns.  Two officers leading the Italian soldiers become increasingly disenchanted with the General's homicidal strategy -- each of the two protagonists rebels and ends up dying for his convictions.  Accordingly, the movie is an unrelenting portrait of horrific injustice and cruelty and, at its end, those who have had the temerity to oppose this brutal system are executed -- the film is ideologically pure:  it represents warfare as entirely futile, tactically pointless, and absurd.  But the film's great cruelty is that those who speak out about this futility are, themselves, destroyed and the war, presumably, simply continues unabated.  After about 15 minutes, the viewer longs for the soldiers to rise up and kill their officers and this desire only increases throughout the rest of the picture.  But all efforts at rebellion are ruthlessly quashed and so the hapless audience is left enraged at the injustice portrayed in the film.

The movie concerns warfare in the Asiago altiplano, a battle for a place called Monte Fiore.  (Rosi's father was a photographer who covered the Asiago front and he took a photograph that triggered the director's interest in the subject -- the picture showed enlisted men handcuffed to trees in No-Man's-Land, a form of execution by enemy bullet used to crush dissent in the ranks.)  General Leone, played by Alain Cuny, and his men have been driven off Monte Fiore -- they mount a futile counterattack with cavalry against machine guns and the field ends up strewn with dead men and dying, mangled  horses.  At one point, a scout suspects an enemy ambush and cries out that the retreating column should stop.  Leone is appalled that a scout has issued an order and requires that the man be shot.  Ottolenghi, the commanding officer objects that the scout did nothing wrong.  Nonsense, General Leone declares, the man must be shot, even if innocent, to demonstrate military discipline.  (Ottolenghi uses a subterfuge to save the man.)  The Italians retreat into a huge network of trenches from which they launch repeated attacks -- all of them totally unsuccessful.  When one group of soldiers balks at a pointless assault, Leone has the brigade decimated -- shooting a group of wailing men tied to tall posts:  as is characteristic for this movie, one of the men escapes and flees a long distance -- we are rooting for him to get away -- but he is shot down, wounded, and, then, dragged back to be tied up to his post again, and, although dying from a gunshot wound, shot by the firing squad.  Ottolenghi, a socialist, suggests that his, all farm laborers, men should rebel.  For this comment, he sent on a suicide mission to cut through barbed wire and killed.  Leone outfits a platoon of soldiers in medieval armor and sends them into the fray -- the machine bullets perforate the men's ridiculous looking armor (they are like animate garbage cans) with ease and they are all killed in about 15 seconds.  Leone, a silver-haired man of great personal valor, suggests that his soldiers attack carrying knives in their teeth to gut the Austrians in hand-to-hand combat.  But, of course, no one can get within two-hundred yards of the Austrian machine-gun emplacements.  Finally, artillery is hauled through the Alpine mud up to the front and a huge cannonade ensues.  But the gunners have the range wrong and rain shells down on the Italian troops.  Ordered to attack, the troops refuse to leave their shelters -- after all, they are being shelled by their own artillery -- and Leone's lieutenants order yet another decimation of the troops:  one out of every ten men is dragged into the shellfire and gunned down by a firing squad.  This is too much for Ottolenghi's successor.  He promotes an uprising that fails and is executed in a monumental quarry -- a vast stone-walled pit in the side of the mountain that seems to represent the implacable cruelty of the war and its leaders.  The movie is a bit like Kubrick's Paths of Glory but without that films' somewhat forced humanism -- Paths of Glory ultimately was a forensic movie, a document of a trial about justice and injustice in war-time.  In this film, there are no real trials.  Military tribunals sentence men to death in a hospital for self-inflicted wounds, an assembly line of murder that results in a conviction every thirty seconds.  On the battlefield, the situation is so terrible that, at one point, the Austrian machine-gunners stop firing and shout "Italian soldiers don't make us kill you any more.  We've had enough.  Go back to your trenches."  The attackers return to their squalid pits where many of them are executed for treason.  In Renoir's The Grand Illusion, two soldiers escape across the Swiss border, wading through deep snow -- a German soldier aims his gun at them, draws a bead, but, then, refuses to fire since he thinks it pointless to kill fellow human beings who are merely escaping an intolerable plight.  In this film, a man flees across the snowy plateau, running for the Austrian lines crying out "Kamerad!  Kamerad!"  He almost makes it, but at the last minute an Italian sniper, one of his comrades, guns him down.   This is a radical, disturbing film, more like the works Peter Watkins (for instance, The Battle of Culloden) than any of the other movies contemporary to it. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond (2016) is a film of staggering incompetence.  If it were a bridge, its span would pitch cars and trucks into the abyss.  If it were a house, the roof would leak and the toilets wouldn't flush and there would be cracks in its basement foundation.  Perhaps, we shouldn't be too surprised:  competency, after all, is a rare thing.  One has only to consider the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be reminded of that fact.  The film's ineptitude is signaled by its grammatically incoherent title:  beyond what?

Star Trek Beyond begins with a couple of promising jokes.  James Tiberius Kirk is making a pitch to a crowd of standard-issue iguana-faced villains.  They abuse him verbally but there is a strange,unsettling pitch of hysteria in their voices.  Suddenly, the monsters attack him en masse and, only then, do we discover that the creatures, far from being burly man-sized brutes, are about the scale of chickens -- they bite at Captain Kirk's ankles and cling to his shoulders.  It's a good disorienting gag, but, as the film progresses, the movie is so badly stitched together that you begin to wonder if the joke was intentional -- maybe, the director, Jason Lin, is so bad that he didn't know how to stage the opening scene and intended that we understand at the outset that the iguana heads were the size of squirrels.  There a cynical voice-over captain's log that promises some Guardians of the Galaxy-style irreverence, but it all immediately comes to naught.  Once the plot begins in earnest, the jokes, more or less, evaporate and we are left with a gargantuan parade of special effects that manage to be both incoherent, deafeningly loud, and tedious all at the same time.  The director doesn't have any idea how to put one image next to another to tell a story -- he has no sense of space or location or, even, physical plausibility.  (This may result from constructing a movie that other than the actors probably has no tangible physical reality of any sort -- it's all people gesticulating in front of green screens.)   Halfway through the movie, the shipwrecked crew of the Enterprise is playing cat and mouse with another group of lizard-faced bad guys.  We see our heroes sheltering in a sort of dark niche -- much of the film is shot in murky darkness, the blue-green gloom that is the last refuge of scoundrels in a special effects movie.  Suddenly, the movie cuts to an exterior that is completely disorienting -- the camera, then, engages in a kind of pointless spiraling motion around a toadstool-like whatchamagig to come to rest on some reptilian soldiers walking around in the gloom.  We have absolutely no sense as to where our protagonists are located in the image -- the camera motion, although showy is completely uncommunicative, and there is no suspense generated by the images because we don't know if the bad guys and our heroes are close to one another or hundreds of yards apart.  Later, Captain Kirk (I think -- it's baffling that the main male actors all look exactly alike) mounts a motorcycle inexplicably discovered in deep space and rides it around, using magic powers provided to him by a female alien to clone himself into a half dozen roaring, buzzing motorcycles.  It's kind of like Steve McQueen's ride in The Great Escape except on steroids.  But there are a few problems:  first, the whole surface of the planet looks like C. D. Friedrich's painting of the Wreck of the Hoffnung, that is, this planet is comprised of vertical shards of rock like the ice field crushing the ship in the painting -- there's no flat space over which anyone could possibly ride a motorcycle although, suddenly, wheel-friendly terraces magically appear.  And, it's completely unclear how James Kirk (if that's who it is) has acquired the ability to clone himself.  There are some impressive special effects, probably peaking about a half hour into the picture when the bad guys unleash a swarm of small tack-shaped space-ships, millions of them it seems that swirl through space like an immense cloud of bats -- the millions of tiny, sharp-edged space vehicles overwhelm the Enterprise and, in an intensely confusing and poorly designed sequence, the iconic space cruiser seems to be ripped into pieces before it collapse into the stony pinnacles of the planet.  There's an artificial world that consists of dizzying moebius strip-like ribbons of earth and steel covered with skyscrapers, some of these twisting spans bearing lakes and parks and rivers of glittering water -- the place looks like an Escher engraving gone mad and it's a wonderful effect.  But the film doesn't explain exactly how the gravitational fields around these cantilevered moebius strips keep the people walking around upside down from falling off.  This failing is particularly grievous because the movie's idiotic climax involves hand to hand combat on one of the prominences protruding from these dizzying spans and when Kirk seems to fall, instead he is held aloft by mysterious gravitational (or should I say antigravitational) forces.  The movie simply improvises exceptions to the laws of physics as it requires them.  Star Trek Beyond has about a half-hour worth of mind-boggling special effects -- but this spectacle simply goes to show us how far technology has advanced beyond the narrative competence of these film makers.

Star

The Cameraman

The Cameraman, a Buster Keaton movie made in 1928, is a classical example of a silent comedy.  The movie has a simple, lucid structure that can be readily expanded to incorporate gags and comical sequences without detracting from the principal emphasis of the plot.  Everything is exquisitely calculated, precisely designed, and not really very funny.  Like many of Keaton's comedies, the viewer is left in awe, astounded by the comedian's grace and athleticism and his razor-sharp timing, but, also, excluded as it were from much participation in the formulaic plot -- we know what will happen before it occurs, although, as in many silent comedies, the gags are frequently far more grandiose and astonishing that we could have predicted.  But the general shape of the narrative, resolutely without anything like satire or social criticism, is wholly predictable, a simple-minded, if emotionally, satisfying morality play in which the beleaguered hero in the end wins the affection of the girl notwithstanding his apparent incompetence.  Keaton plays a street photographer who sells cheap tintypes for ten cents an image.  He encounters a beautiful girl who works at MGM in the documentary department -- the film seems to be taking place in New York City and appears to have been shot on location.  Documentary film maker are imagined to be brave and bold pioneers -- we see one of them filming a battle in World War One in the midst of huge explosions and machine gun fire.  Keaton takes the girl's picture, falls in love with her, and tries to impress her by becoming a documentary fiml maker himself.  His initial efforts are complete failures and he can't go in or out of the door of the MGM offices without shattering the window with his tripod -- it's an ongoing gag that's not funny at all, but rather demonstrative of the hero's radical ineptitude. The girl gives Keaton a tip that there is a Tong War about to begin in Chinatown.  He finds himself in the middle of spectacular street fighting in which the rival gangs shoot at one another with Tommy guns and big heavy WWI vintage machine guns.  (Before reaching the scene of the battle, he has acquired a fantastically expressive and well-trained capuchin monkey -- one of the jokes in the film is that the monkey is far more expressive than Keaton.)  Keaton's footage of the Tong War seems to be lost; he thinks he forgot to lead his camera.  He is fired.  His girlfriend goes for a boat ride with the hero's rival, a dapper bruiser who is literally twice Keaton's size, in a sandy harbor that looks like somewhere near LA.  There is an accident and Keaton rescues the girl.  The big bruiser boyfriend takes credit for saving the heroine and Keaton is left sitting alone and disconsolate in the rubbish on the ugly looking beach.  Fortunately, the capuchin monkey has filmed Keaton's rescue of the heroine, the lost Tong war footage is found, and Keaton is vindicated, winning the girl in the end.  As he walks down Fifth Avenue, ticker tape descends on him and it seems as if the whole city is celebrating his victory.  But a quick inserted shot shows us Lucky Lindbergh riding in a open convertible and, it appears, that Keaton with his lady love is simply walking in Lindbergh's triumphant procession.  The movie contains some fantastically beautiful shots -- a scene in which Keaton staggers through the rain with the camera moving ahead of him seems to anticipate half of the glories of Italian neo-realist film and the Tong War is excitingly portrayed.  (As one might expect, there is a strong whiff of racism about this sequence -- at one point, Keaton violates all journalistic ethics by restoring to one of the combatants a dagger so that the man can fight, and die, more spectacularly for his camera.  We would have a different feeling about this scenes, I think, if it were not stereotyped Chinese battling in the streets.)  Generally, films that feature monkeys alongside their lead man are in desperate straits -- in this case, the diminutive monkey, lithe and strong as Keaton himself, is a good match for the hero and the little beast is endearingly cute.  Comedies of this sort are very interesting in that they were set in the present-day of the 1920's and, inadvertently, depict with great, even startling, clarity what day-to-day life was like at that time.  Keaton's small furnished apartment gives us a glimpse of how people lived in the cities in the late twenties and there is a fascinating scene at something called "the Municipal Plunge," actually a public swimming pool.  As is often the case in silent films and two-reelers made in the thirties, some of the gags are protracted to nightmarish and Kafkaesque effect -- in this picture, Keaton shares a tiny changing booth with a huge man and they keep getting entangled in one another's clothing:  the effect is palpably stifling and claustrophobic.  It is isn't funny but it is certainly disturbing.

The Loved One

The influence of Fellini and Kubrick weighs heavily on Tony Richardson's nightmare black comedy, The Loved One (1965).  The film's deep focus and high contrast, clinically analytical black and white photography, a tremendous achievement by Haskell Wexler calls to mind the pitch darkness and blasts of acetylene-white light in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove -- the films share a writer:  Terry Southern worked with Christopher Isherwood to adapt Evelyn Waugh's novel to the screen. Furthermore, both the Kubrick picture and Richardson's film are intensely invested in the details of the industry that they document -- there is a kind of neo-realist intensity of focus on the embalming rooms and cosmeticians' cubicles in The Loved One that is similar to the documentary imagery of SAC bombers and underground war rooms on the Kubrick movie.  And, like Fellini, particularly in 8 1/2, Richardson's movie luxuriates in the grotesque, most notably in the horrific scenes involving Rod Steiger as Mr. Joyboy, a hapless embalmer hopelessly enmeshed with his vastly obese mother -- Richardson liked scenes involving jaws rending and tearing meat (there is a famous episode in his Tom Jones of that kind) and, in The Loved One, we get to see Mom Joyboy ravaging a full suckling pig.  Mom Joyboy's meal, filmed in Soviet-style montage with canted angles, is overdone and not very funny -- on the other hand, that scene follows a hilarious monologue by the wet-eyed Steiger in which he applies his best method-acting technique to recounting a dream in which boiled lobsters devoured his mother.  The contrast between Steiger's laugh-out-loud monologue and the grotesque and unfunny eating montage epitomizes the whole film -- about half of it is exceedingly funny and brilliantly realized; the other half is over-emphatic, hysterical, like a laugh-track gone berserk.

The Loved One was a big prestigious production and has a cast swarming with bizarre cameos -- Liberace plays a dapper, even, sinister, casket salesman:  you expect him to be outrageous but, to the contrary, his performance is effectively understated.  Jonathon Winter plays the Peter Sellers double-part in the film, acting both the role of a corrupt, if visionary, preacher and cemetery entrepreneur and his brother, a smarmy conniving Hollywood agent turned pet cemetery proprietor.  Winters is funny in both roles, although the apocalyptic imagery associated with the corrupt evangelist is ultimately overdone to the point of absurdity:  when the maniacal, ranting Reverend attempts to rape, the mortuary cosmetician, Aimee Thanatogenos, stained glass imagery on the walls of the cemetery chapel come to life as vivid, animated sex scenes and the Blessed Reverend, who has sponsored an orgy for military men in his casket showroom, hovers over the infernal landscape of Los Angeles, all throbbing freeways and dusty vacant lots, in a sinister black helicopter.  Paul Williams, whose presence in films was always utterly bizarre and inexplicably weird, appears as a boy genius instrumental in the Reverend's idea of blasting "stiffs" into orbit, thereby, clearing out the tenants of his vast and gaudy memorial park so that it can be converted into a senior citizen's retirement and assisted living compound.  Williams is particularly creepy because of his intensity and the fact that he seems to be no known gender and no particular age -- he is either a wizened boy-child or an inexplicably infantile old woman.  John Gielgud plays the part of an expatriate English gentleman, apparently ripely homosexual, employed as a set decorator in the film industry.  His firing by the blandly indifferent and boyish Roddy McDowell, acting the role of a studio executive, causes him to commit suicide and his obsequies sets in motion the plot.  Robert Morse is the film's protagonist, the dead set designer's nephew, and a rival with the foppish embalmer, Mr. Joyboy, for the love of the sepulchral mortuary attendant, Aimee Thanatogenos,  Tab Hunter appears briefly as a cemetery tour guide and grave-plot salesman.  The film begins with "America the Beautiful" sung as an ironic counterpoint to planes landing at LAX, clearly a reference to the beginning of Kubrick's Strangelove showing the SAC bombers copulating in mid-air like immense ominous dragonflies, and, with due symmetry, not otherwise observed in this film, ends with Morse returning to England from the same airport, sadder, it seems, but not wiser.  I saw this film on television in the late sixties -- the movie has some images that once seen will stick with the viewer for the rest of his or her life:  at least this has been the case with me.  The falls of Xanadu, a twinkling grove in the Forest Lawn-like celebrity cemetery glistens in the moonlight as Morse's character recites Keats -- "I have been half in love with easeful death"; the cynical owner of a pet cemetery spears small furry dogs with a kind of lance and casts the rigor-mortified beasts into a pet crematorium; Aimee Thanatogenos lives in condemned house tipped over the edge of desert ravine -- it's a slide area and her home is inexorably slipping into the abyss and, in the final shot in that sequence, we see her swinging on her porch, pumping her legs, to fly far out over the canyon as the home, supported by a few spindly beams groans and trembles underneath.  Mr. Joyboy sends messages to Miss Thanatogenos by the expressions he sculpts into the faces of the deceased "loved ones" -- we see John Gielgud smiling demonically and another corpse with a hang-dog expression of utter dejection expressing the embalmer's sorrow at her rebuffing his advances.  A subplot, derived from Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts involving a burly alcoholic playing the part of a faux Hindu guru offering advise to the lovelorn is less effective simply because those themes were managed much powerfully by West than in the film.  The picture is a vast, dispiriting spectacle, a nihilistic epic, and, despite its innumerable flaw well worth seeing.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Film Essay -- Cemetery of Splendor

The Cemetery of Splendor and Apichatpong Weerasethakul

 

 

 

 

Since no one in the West knows how to properly pronounce his name, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, answers to "Joe." The Thai director was born in 1970 in a provincial city in Thailand. He is ethnically Chinese. Both of his parents are medical doctors and were employed by the local hospital in Khon Khaen, the town where he was raised.

Weerasethakul was educated at the university in his home town and, then, at the Art Insitute in Chicago. He studied film and, beginning in 1993, directed lyrical and poetic short subjects. Weerashakul’s first feature-length film, Mysterious Object at Noon, an exercise in surrealism was completed in 1999. Mysterious Object at Noon is not fiction – rather, it is an example of a surrealist game, "Exquisite Corpse." In "Exquisite Corpse", participants in the game construct sentences or images in fragments that are, then, combined into a finished artifact. The name of the game comes from one of the first sentences constructed, grammatical element by element: "The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine." The film is a kind of road movie: the director travels throughout Thailand encouraging people that he meets to add to the narrative that he is constructing.

Weerasethakul’s first narrative film is Blissfully Yours (2002). The movie involves a young man suffering from a mysterious rash over his upper body. He is involved with two women and has sex with them. Weerasthakul is homosexual and the film features male full frontal nudity controversial in Thailand.

Working with another director and performance artist, Weerasthakul created a spoof on popular Thailand martial arts films, The Adventure of Iron Pussy – this is a film of the genre popularized by John Waters, a campy appropriation of a trash-culture. Weerasethakul said that he enjoyed making the 2003 picture but that he didn’t particularly enjoy watching it.

In 2004, Weerasthakul directed Tropical Malady, an enigmatic two-part film that seems to equate homosexuality with vampirism. This was followed by 2005's Syndromes and a Century, a movie paying tribute to Weerasethakul’s parents and their relationship – this film is also divided into two parts that don’t really match one another. (This film was commissioned by the opera director, Peter Sellars, and the government of Austria as part of the New Crowned Hope celebration of Mozart’s operas composed in Vienna and Salzburg.) Weerasethakul’s Uncle Bonmee who can recall Past Lives (2010) was the director’s breakthrough movie with international audiences – the film was shown in art cinemas around the world and highly regarded. The movie involves an old man who can recall, so he says his past lives. The picture features some very primitive, if frightening special effects – there is a large shadow monster, for instance, with glowing ruby red eyes. Mekong Hotel (2012) is frankly experimental – the picture shows Pob ghosts eating offal in a deserted hotel overlooking the Mekong river. The background is bucolic, even, idyllic – green jungle with the Mekong river flowing through the landscape. There is much discussion of various kinds of Thai ghosts and vampires.



Cemetery of Splendor was made in 2015.

It is important to understand that Weerasthakul is an important "installation" artist. He has made many short films for installations that he has designed for various museums. This is the kind of art you encounter at the Walker Art Center – a darkened room, some artifacts, colored lights, a video monitor showing enigmatic images. Much of Weerasethakul’s art is designed for consumption in this kind of setting. In this respect, Weerasethakul’s films must be considered in light of the primarily non-narrative esthetic implicated in museum installations of this kind. (In Cemetery of Splendor, the impromptu hospital housing the somnambulant soldiers becomes a kind of installation art – the beds with their adjacent transfusion equipment and the C-Pap masked soldiers are bathed in light that modulates through the spectrum; this light also tints vertical stanchions between the beds, the clear plastic in those enigmatic forms also ascending and descending through the spectrum. In my view, the plastic rods suffused with colorful light are dream-allusions to the IV stanchions that Weerasethakul saw in the hospital where his parents worked.)

Weerasethakul’s films, therefore, sometimes present this conundrum – what is the finished work of art? Is it the movie? Or is it the installation setting in which his movies are often presented? Weerasethakul’s films are screened as self-sufficient, self-standing works of art – but, in fact, in many instances, his movies don’t stand alone; rather, they are part of larger, more complex exhibitions that may include other kinds of art. An example is the so-called Primitive project shown in 2011 at the New Museum in New York City. The centerpiece of Primitive is the film Uncle Bonmee who can recall Past Lives. However, the film is only one element of a larger constellation of artworks including collaborations with other Thai artists, a number of short videos, including The Phantoms of Nabua. Nabua is a town in the Isaan region of Thailand where the Communists clashed with local peasants, attacking villages and driving all military-age men into the jungles. A number of atrocities were committed in the area between 1965 and the mid-seventies. The installation consists of a number of screens on which video images are projected. Some of the films recreate a Thai legend of a widow who snatches away men who enter her enchanted forest. (Nabua is in the extreme northeast of Thailand, bordering on the Mekong River.) The Phantoms of Nabua depict local boys playing soccer with a flaming soccer ball. In other videos, we see local kids building a flying saucer as a kind of hang-out and refuge from the adults in the village. The installation’s theme is how people cope with historical trauma, an issue allied to The Cemetery of Splendor. Commissioned by Munich’s Haus der Kunst, the installation is related to research that Weerasethakul conducted in support of Uncle Bonmee.  

 


Production

The Cemetery of Splendor was written in city-Thai and, then, translated into the Isaan dialect spoken in Khon Kaen where the film was made. According to Weerasethakul, an audience in Bangkok would require subtitles and not be able to understand the words spoken by the performers in the film. The "making of" featurette accompanying the film shows Weerasethakul and his leading lady, with another writer, laboriously translating each line of the script into the Isaan version of the Thail language.

The movie was shot in the provincial capital of Khon Kaen, a large city 450 kilometers from Bangkok in the geographical center of Thailand. This is Weerasethakul’s home town, the place where he was raised, and attended college. The city is notable for a nine-story tall Stupa containing relics of Lord Buddha.


Buddhism in Thailand
Around 250 BC, the great Indian ruler, Ashoka, dispatched Buddhist missionaries to the east and west. The embassy to the Greeks failed. But the missionaries sent to Southeast Asia were successful and Buddhism spread from its place of origin, India, into Burma, China, and Ceylon. Where Thailand is now located, three different groups of tribal people lived – the Laos, Thais, and Khmer. These people were largely rural and worshiped local spirits. Although there was an overlay of Brahmanical Hinduism in this part of southeast Asia, the peasants believed that all events were controlled by the influence of myriad spirits concealed in nature. In each house, an ancestral spirit was venerated. Every grove, field, and river was thought to contain spirits call phii that had to be propitiated if the crops were to grow, livestock and women remain fertile, and disease be averted. Phii could be both beneficial or malign.

Buddhism in the Theravada form became the state religion in the area that is now Thailand late – around the 12th and 13th centuries. Elites ruling in urban centers proclaimed themselves to be Buddhist and established large monasteries. In the country, monastic Buddhism was superimposed over pre-existing animist or spiritist practices.

Every Thai male is expected to serve some time in a Buddhist monastery. Young men typically enter the monasteries during the rainy season (July to October) when agricultural work as impractical. Most Thai men spent about 3 months in the monastery, learning the Pali canon, and practicing chants and meditation. Buddhist monasteries in rural Thailand are supported by the local farming communities – monks who have taken life-long vows are supported by their families or the communities from which they hail. Since menstruation was thought to be ritually impure, women were not active in the Buddhist Sangha (community) until after menopause. Mothers are supposed to encourage their sons to become monks and a woman whose boy goes to the monastery is thought to accrue much karmic favor. Buddhist monasteries for Thai men are flexible about their membership – it is not rare for a householder to spend several months every couple years in the monastery renewing his vows as it were. As is the case throughout the world, the number of full-time monks in Thailand, once as many as one in ten men, has radically decreased.

Thai Buddhist monasteries are thought to be channels through which divine wisdom and grace flow into the world. The monks are called upon to perform ceremonies, chanting for rain, blessing crops, praying for the longevity of the sick and aged, and manufacturing magical talismans, including love amulets. Monks are taught to act mindfully, and practice loving kindness, concern, compassion, generosity, calm, and the pursuit of the good – they are pacifist and not allowed to shed the blood of any living being.

Classical Buddhist doctrine that conditioned reality and desire are the causes of suffering are "considerably softened in popular understanding" – as per Johnson and Robinson in The Buddhist Religion. Most Thai people expect that if they lead a relatively good life, they will be awarded with a favorable rebirth – no one really expects to be reborn as a hungry ghost or animal or, even, in a Buddhist hell, a temporary state of torment that is similar to Catholic purgatory. These unfortunate destinies are possible according to the law of Karma but not likely.

There is no inconsistency between Buddhism and the pagan gods of a place. Buddhist thought holds that the world is full of gods. There are many heavens above us, filled with gods that are not immortal but that live a minimum of 36 million years. Similarly, there is a hell underfoot where sinners undergo purgatorial purification in support of a favorable rebirth. Ontologically less than (or below) that hell is the consciousness of animals. Beneath animals are innumerable ghosts, many of them hungry with greed and lust. These ghosts are tormented by the lowest order of beings, demons. Thus, Weerasethakul can show us goddesses and, indeed, have them convey important plot points to the audience without, in any way, compromising the fundamentally Buddhist analysis of existence demonstrated by the film.


 

Political Implications

"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake up."
Stephen Daedulus in James Joyce’s Ulysses

At Cannes, the publicity package for Cemetery of Splendor advised that the film was based upon real events – apparently, 40 Thai soldiers were incapacitated by a strange sleeping sickness at a remote military base.

Some critics interpret Cemetery of Splendor politically: Justin Chang writing in Variety reported from Cannes that the imagery of the sleeping soldiers correlated to a government paralyzed by internal dissension. Tony Rayns reporting from the Toronto Film Festival opined that the movie was an "angry political attack on the current turmoil in Thailand" although framed as a "lamentation."

Thailand was ruled by a series of military dictators beginning in 1932 when the King of Siam relinquished his monarchical power. Between 1932 and 1997, Thailand’s history is a series of military coups, some of them during the Vietnam war era, influenced by the CIA. In 1997, a new Constitution was framed and free Democratic elections were conducted in 2001. Although the elections were marred by street-fighting, the results were internationally certified as legitimate. But political chaos between Thailand’s five principal parties continued to the point that the military sponsored a coup d’etat in 2006. More protest ensued including violent riots in 2010, the so-called Red Shirts protest. (These riots, arising out of plan to unseat the acting, democratically elected Prime Minister resulted in grenade attacks and open civil war in some parts of Bangkok – 87 people were killed, 1500 injured, and, at least, 51 Red Shirts "disappeared," when the army and police intervened. ) In 2013, the government of Thailand proposed amnesty for political opponents of the regime. This proposal was rescinded, however, shortly after it was made with respect to the Red Shirts. More street fighting ensued and the government succumbed to yet another military coup in 2014. At present, Thailand is ruled by the military junta. Yet another draft of the country’s constitution should be unveiled this year and the acting head of the government, a military general, is proposing the re-education camps be established for political opponents of the present regime.

 

 


La Vida es Sueno
At the end of Cemetery of Splendor, we see Jenjira sitting outside the school and watching some boys play soccer in a field that has been uprooted and gouged into heaps of dirt by the military. At least, one of the soccer goals is intact, but the rest of the field is a badlands of pits and piles of muddy earth. It seems impossible that anyone could play soccer in such a place.

But what exactly are we seeing? At least three possibilities exist. First, we may be seeing schoolchildren who are engaged in the quixotic attempt to use their soccer field for play even thought it has been destroyed by the military – this is a literal reading of the image. Second, Jenjira may be dreaming – we may be seeing her dream in which playing children are juxtaposed with the ravaged field. (The film’s final shot, showing Jenjira attempting to become awake – she does this by opening her eyes as wide as possible – in fact, suggests that, perhaps, we are seeing her dream.) A third possibility is that either the children are ghosts or, in the alternative, the cratered field is a ghost – in other words, we are seeing a cratered field infested with the phantoms of boys playing soccer or, in the alternative, boys playing soccer in a future (or past) ghost landscape.

The power and beauty of Cemetery of Splendor is that we don’t make an election as to what the image means. In fact, the image can hold all of these meanings, and probably more, without any incongruity. This is because there is no reality to the meditative mind. In Buddhism, a mind awakened to the truth understands that there is no world, no time, no self, neither me nor you – rather, the only reality is the jewel in the lotus, the divine spark of pure untarnished consciousness. Thus, the world is literally a dream, something that our desires imagine and project, an illusion (like a motion picture) that we take to be true but that is ultimately wholly insubstantial. The objective of consciousness is to become fully awakened, that is to achieve Buddha-mind – an understanding that desire is suffering and that desire

can be overcome. To call the children playing in the excavated field a dream is superfluous – first, we are watching a movie and, so, everything presented is unreal, a mere image. But the world itself, to the Buddhist thinker, is only a dream – what we take to be tangible reality is as insubstantial as a dream, a fiction: the boys playing soccer are not real because nothing is real.

Weerasethakul is homosexual. The AIDS epidemic figures heavily in several of his films. Weerasethakul is also the son of parents who were doctors and says that he was literally "raised in a hospital." The idea that suffering and desire are related seems intrinsic to several of Weerasethakul’s films. This point is made vividly in Cemetery of Splendor when the sleeping soldier displays an erection – desire is what keeps us from enlightenment; the self that desires is asleep, not fully conscious, a sleeper like the young men hospitalized in the old school. Images relating to transfusions, wound-care, catheterization, and the like appear in most of Weerasethakul’s films and signify, I think, the idea that an unenlightened life is one that is enmeshed in desire and suffering.

I think it is a mistake to over-estimate the influence of doctrinal Buddhism on Weerasethakul. There is no evidence that he is particularly religious and seems to have been raised in a secular environment. Most of his formative experiences, at least with respect to art, probably occurred not in Southeast Asia but in the Windy City of Chicago. In interviews, Weerasethakul says that he began to meditate while working on the "Primitive" project – that is, during the period of time that he was directing Uncle Bonmee. Meditation, and, later, reading scientific studies of sleep, have led Weerasethakul to explore the idea that reality is a dream and that we are unable to reliably ascertain whether we are awake or asleep and dreaming. (Weerasthakul notes that sleep involves REM cycles about ninety minutes long – that is, the typical length of a narrative feature film such as the horror movie glimpsed as a trailer in the Cemetery of Splendor). Furthermore, Weerasethakul’s imagery seems more heavily influenced by "folk Buddhism", that is the array of superstitions and associated imagery that Thai peasants hold. In the film, we see a representation of a "rural Hell" – that is, a sculpture garden made by Buddhist monks for didactic purposes. (I am unsure whether this sculpture garden, shown in a ruinous state, was built for the movie or previously existed.) These "rural Hells," often, depicted sinners undergoing torment in Hell – "rural Hells" feature lurid representations of torture and mutilation involving concrete figures, often, with outsized and swollen genitalia. The notion of Hell has no real authority in philosophical Buddhism, but in folk religion, the idea has significant traction – people who sin shall be tortured in a way consistent with the nature of their sins. The "Hell" depicted in Cemetery of Splendor apparently overlies the palace of the goddesses (or, perhaps, the palace where the warring Kings resided.) No trace exists of the palaces now lost for thousands of years. It is only by reason of Jeng’s ability to enter Itt’s mind and recall his earlier incarnations ("past lives") that she can lead Jenjira on a tour of the lost palace. What we are shown of the "Hell" occupying the site is rather mild: a simulated bomb shelter that relates to the fact that the area was a war zone during the Vietnam era – the Communists in Laos, on the other side of the Mekong River, fought supporters of United States in this area – and a grim memento mori, an image of two lovers who are transformed into a skeletal version of themselves in a second concrete sculpture. The "Hell" shows us that the landscape itself is dreaming – the autumnal-looking and mournful woods dream both of a violent and an idyllic past: the war and the long-gone palace.

The word "Buddha" means "one who is fully awakened." At the end of the film, Jenjira opens her eyes as wide as possible, accessing her Buddha-nature – that is, the spark of consciousness that allows her to be fully awakened to the reality of existence. Her mutilated leg reminds us of the Four Noble Truths:

– Life is suffering.

– Suffering is caused by desire.

– Cease desire and suffering ends.

– There is a path by which desire (and, therefore, suffering) can be overcome.

Buddhists imagine existence as controlled by karma. Karma simply means "action" – and the idea is also simple: our past actions determine our present. Similarly, actions committed in an earlier existence condition the terms of our present reincarnation. Finally, as the film shows, history as the actions of many men and women itself possesses a karmic force – a history of ancient war can control the present. Thailand’s ambiguous history during the Vietnam era has a karmic force that has afflicted the present-day nation with suffering, metaphorically depicted as the combat between the ghost-princes that has sapped the energy of the modern-day Thai soldiers.

In Buddhist thought, karma is generally depicted as flowing water. Many, many actions combine to create an almost irresistable force of karmic destiny – thus, the film’s depictions of a great river, presumably the Mekong, shows how the force of hundreds of thousands of human actions combines to create energy that flows in a current in a certain direction. Buddhist practice, however, may reverse the course of karmic influence – for this reason, a person who has attained the status of an Arhat, or enlightened one, is called a "stream-winner", that is, a person who can move against the current of karma. Bad actions, and an unsatisfactory history, can impel us toward a certain karmic destiny, but we have the power within us to reverse or, at least, impede the flow of this current. These ideas are epitomized in a cinematic pendant to Cemetery of Splendor, Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel, also released in 2015. This hour long film was made at the same time that Cemetery of Splendor was produced, apparently, shot in off-hours when the cast and crew were not devoted to making the feature film – it seems to show cast and crew at the hotel where they stayed while shooting scenes by the Mekong River. The final six minutes of Mekong Hotel simply shows the vast expanse of the Mekong River, at flood stage that we are told threatens Bangkok. The river looks like a sea or a great elongated lake and seems to have no current at all – but a tree has fallen into the flood and we can see the force of the mighty river pushing that tree downstream. In the far distance, some people on jet-skis are playing on the river, superficial and futile action that has no effect on the Mekong’s inexorable flow. Since Mekong Hotel features Jenjira Pongpas, the leading lady in Cemetery of Splendor, and, in fact, references certain scenes in the feature film, it is clear that the two films are intended to overlap.

One of Cemetery of Splendor’s more enigmatic sequences shows people in a river-side park. We see them occupy different locations, switching places with one another on the shore of a great river. Buddhism holds that there is no self – "where self is, truth is not." I interpret this sequence as epitomizing this concept – we will all assume various interchangeable positions in the world of suffering or Samsara. Sometimes, we are oppressed, sometimes we are the oppressor – we love and are loved, we reject or injure one another and are, in turn, rejected and injured ourselves. Because there is nothing permanent in our souls, we play many roles all of them interchangeable with one another – and, while we are deluding ourselves with the many roles that we play, the great river of karma flows inexorably by, and through, us.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Mekong Hotel

Mekong Hotel is an  hour-long film by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul pendant to his longer feature, Cemetery of Splendor (2015).  Even when designed as conventional narratives, the Thai director's films present significant challenges to his audience -- the movies, often, feature utterly bizarre, supernatural events rooted in Thailand's folk Buddhism and are shot in a serene contemplative style that, in some moods of mindfulness, encourages meditation and, in other moods, drowsiness.  (I have never watched one of Weerasethakul's films without falling asleep -- and I count myself a fan of the film maker's works.)  Mekong Hotel does not present anything like a conventional narrative and its subject matter is very, very strange:  at a huge, deserted hotel overlooking the Mekong River, Weerasethakul and a friend with a guitar are designing a sound-track, apparently, the sound track to Mekong Hotel.  The man with the guitar begins playing, apparently improvising -- sometimes, he plays what sound like very slow and beautiful blues; other times, he gets lost and has to stop and re-start the music and, for part of the movie, he seems just to be casually strumming his instrument.  Nonetheless, the guitar music in its various, improvised modes underlies the entire film and gives it a relaxed, laid-back and contemplative mood.  Hungry ghosts called Pobs live in the hotel and are sometimes seen feasting on entrails -- the guts are from eviscerated pets and, sometimes, people.  Jenjira Pongpas, the heroine of Cemetery of Splendor, is on hand and, on occasion references events in the other film -- for instance, she mentions her American husband, Frank, a man we met in the Cemetery of Splendor.  Lying listlessly on a bed, Jenjira confesses that she is a 600 year old vampire; this doesn't seem to much impress her teenage daughter.  Sitting on a balcony over the river, Jenjira recalls being taught how to fire an M16 rifle during the troubles at the time of the war in Vietnam.  From the balconies of the hotel, we sometimes see enigmatic events:  a big backhoe digs in the river embankment and a strange white column falls over; two workers seem to be sweeping up a parking lot near the hotel.  We learn that there is a huge flood underway and that Bangkok may be underwater -- the government is subsidizing boats for the catastrophe.  One man has a machine that he wears on his head that projects him outside of his body -- the machine looks like a backpack.  Another man kneels on the balcony eating offal while a woman who seems to represent the evil spirit within him berates him -- the man knows about his future lives:  he will be reborn as a horse, as several varieties of insect, and, then, as a Filipino boy.  Jenjira talks about Laotian refugees and how the government subsidized them to the extent that she wished that she was one of their number.  The film's final shot, lasting at least six minutes, is an image of the Mekong River at sunset -- a tree floats down the river toward where one, then, two, then four people on jet skis are aimlessly looping around and around on the vast, gradually darkening expanse of water.  The fallen tree drifts out of sight and the four people on jet skis skitter over the surface of the huge river like waterbugs until the film ends.

It's unclear what this film means.  I assume that it must be read as an appendix or foreword, perhaps, to Cemetery of Splendor.  That film involves the effects of historical trauma on the present and explores the idea that past calamities can rule us, as it were, from their graves.  Mekong Hotel seems to be about something similar.  Here the previous trauma is specified as anxiety arising from an influx of Laotian refugees into Thailand in the wake of the Vietnam conflict and militarization of the Thai population near the border.  In Buddhist thought, bad actions result in karmic consequences, including unfavorable rebirths -- this seems to be one of the themes in Mekong Hotel.  I think the film riffs on the idea of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, a place also haunted by ghosts trapped in the past.  Thai dissension is visualized in this film as a kind of cannibalism.  The violent past is a vampire on the present.  But the film, despite its horror movie aspects, is profoundly calm, serene, and contemplative -- the ghosts and vampires are viewed with great tenderness as the victims of historical trauma.  The vast Mekong river rolls calmly toward the horizon, uprooting everything including huge trees -- human beings play on the surface of this immense forceful being, but can't affect its flow.  History rolls past us and we are like tiny waterbugs cutting inconsequential wakes into the surface of the vast and irresistible current of time and existence.   

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Rio Bravo

As far as I know, most people like Rio Bravo and the film's critical reputation, steadfastly promoted by critics like David Thomson, has grown.  I've seen Howard Hawks' 1959 Western start to finish at least three times, and have dipped into the film on many other occasions, and must admit that I dislike the picture -- indeed, I think the film is not just rebarbative but perversely irritating.  Rio Bravo is strangely ugly -- the film consists of one interior shot after another and the picture's color scheme is nauseating:  everything is the color of what you might find in a 8 month old infant's diaper.  There are very few exterior shots and those generally show an Old West main street, probably built for some other movie and used for a dozen other pictures (as well as TV shows) -- the set is devoid of interest, plopped down in a barren desert that is also devoid of any scenic interest.  The film is intensely static -- it's subject is a stand-off between a small group of beleaguered law men and a horde of incompetent bad hombres.  In Peckinpah's Westerns, and John Ford's pictures for that matter, the bad guys are intensely individuated -- they have picturesque appearances and habits.  In Hawks' Western, the bad guys are led by a bland fellow who seems to be modeled on a low-level corporate executive.  With the exception of one dude who looks like he should be speaking Farsi, the henchmen are just fungible cannon fodder.  After John Wayne has killed about 12 of them, it occurs to me that the real heroism in this film is shown by the ever-diminishing group of criminals who valiantly keep up their doomed attack even though it is apparent that the good guys are infallible, dead-eye shots, and, also, seemingly impermeable to bullets.  The movie is slapdash, carelessly assembled (important plot points are forgotten for long periods of time), and highly repetitive -- the film is mostly shots of John Wayne and his colleagues sitting around drinking coffee or images of them striding around the nondescript main street.  Some pictures that are just thrown together, apparently, on a whim, have a certain shaggy charm -- that's not true of Rio Bravo:  the movie feels immensely long, doesn't build suspense in any way, and, although it has some clever thirties' style tough-guy talk, most of what we see is forgettable and, even, deplorable.  Angie Dickinson as Feathers spends most of her screen-time trying to get John Wayne to undress her -- she is so pathetically needy as to be almost unwatchable.  This subplot has a particularly nasty flavor because Wayne seems to be about thirty-five years older than her -- Wayne didn't age particularly well and, in this film, he's often shot in an unflattering way that makes him look more elderly than his curmudgeonly side-kick, Stubby (played by Walter Brennan without his dentures).  It's impossible to understand why Feathers would have any sexual interest in John T. Chance, a gruff, socially inept gunman old enough to be her father.  The plot as everyone knows involves John Wayne as Chance, the hamlet's sheriff, guarding a bad man and murderer.  Chance's deputy is played improbably by Dean Martin.  Martin is a drunk and much of the film commends the use of beer to combat alcoholism.  Martin, who looks physically wet and sticky, seems to be half the size of John Wayne and he is probably the best thing about the film -- his whisky-addled desperation seems, more or less, realistic.  (Of course, Hawks' spoils this aspect of the movie by putting in a couple musical numbers for Martin to sing with the male ingĂ©nue, Ricky Nelson -- the songs are actually pretty good and considering that nothing  much else is happening in the film, the musical interlude isn't half-bad.)  The final gunfight is effectively staged although half-way through the shooting, the whole thing deteriorates into a kind of sport entirely lacking in any kind of suspense and, also, unpleasant in the sense that it suggests that the good guys are murdering the bad guys for sport, that is, for the sheer hell of it.  There is a Mexican innkeeper and his spitfire wife who embody just about every clichĂ© about Hispanics that can be imagined.  Comparing the film to Anthony Mann's greatly superior Man from Laramie, Rio Bravo lacks Jimmy Stewart's quivering, barely repressed hysteria -- in fact, all the lead characters in Man from Laramie seemed to suffer from a sort of peculiarly masculine hysteria, every one was afflicted with some species of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, an undertow of powerful emotion that made the violent confrontations seem much more violent and consequential.  By contrast, Rio Bravo feels curiously detached -- none of the shootings mean much of anything.  When Ward Bond, playing John Wayne's old friend, is gunned-down in the street, there is no emotion shown by anyone; in fact, the most emotion shown in the film is Dean Martin's quaking hand as he reaches for a shot of whiskey.  I understand that the essence of Rio Bravo is an intense, almost psychotic stoicism -- but stoicism is not as photogenic as more emotional reactions to the events depicted.  (Admirers of the film would probably claim that the emotion is repressed -- but I don't see any emotion at all.)  The most memorable thing about Rio Bravo is Walter Brennan's demonic cackle after he uses his shotgun to kill two bad guys trying to ford a tiny creek.  (By the way, there is no Rio Bravo in Rio Bravo -- the title is meaningless misnomer.)   The problem with Rio Bravo is that it is ugly, offensive, and, most of all, exceptionally tedious.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

After the Fall: American Painting in the Thirties

After the Fall:  American Painting in the Thirties is a nicely proportioned exhibition of iconic paintings on canvas made by American artists during the Great Depression.  The show, curated by the Chicago Art Institute, features 93 paintings, about the ideal size for an exhibition -- you can look at each work with some degree of attention without succumbing to exhaustion.  Furthermore, the show's tight focus allows a maximum of comparing and contrasting, one of the pleasures of attending any gallery exhibition.  The level of the art works in the exhibition is very high -- you will recognize about half of the paintings in the show.  These art works are so highly characteristic of American painting in the Depression that many of them have come to stand as symbols for that period of American history.

With a few notable exceptions, these works are not "painterly" -- that is, there are very few bravura displays of paint application:  these works are nothing like art by Van Gogh, for instance, or Max Beckmann or, for that matter, Velasquez or Goya.  To the contrary, the artists are mostly interested in clear draftsmanship and the works feature figures carefully drawn and, then, it seems, colored-in.  Generally, the color schemes are intended to be realistic and even conservative in their appearance -- some of the works, in fact, seem tentatively colored, as if the artist used a medium like colored pencils or watery pastels to tint the images.  In effect, much of the work could be graphic, that is, an engraving or woodcut, that has been laboriously colored.  For this reason, many of the paintings really don't gain that much by being seen in person -- a reasonable reproduction generally suffices to convey the information in these pictures.  And, it is the information, that is paramount to these artists.  In fact, a number of paintings, particularly those by the precisionist Charles Sheeler, look like textbook illustrations for a particularly stolid and obtuse 9th-grade science primer -- for instance, a startling image of a huge hydro-turbine being lowered into place in a power-plant, as reproduced in the catalog, looks almost exactly like an image in a school textbook.  Viewed in the museum, the painting is quite large -- four by six feet, perhaps, and this gives it a certain authority, but the image is, in effect, a glossy technical illustration, something you might expect to see in an old issue of the Saturday Evening Post or Life.  In general, almost all the paintings in the show are primarily illustrative:  this describes many of Grant Wood's canvases, all of them witty but his landscapes, at least, afflicted with the pulpy brown tint of Iowa's soil. (Wood's painting of the "Daughters of the Revolution" and his "American Gothic" by contrast are carefully made portraits, similar to the northern European work of Memling, Holbein, or Cranach -- the catalog touts these paintings as ironic or satirical, in the vein of Sinclair Lewis:  I don't see the images in that light and think that they are, in fact, rather earnest and, even, perhaps, tending toward sentimentality.  There is a large self-loathing painting by Paul Cadmus, "The Fleet's In!" showing floozies with big asses, carousing sailors, and, even, pinch-faced homosexual in a pink tie flirting with a beefy seaman -- the picture is pleasantly lurid, painted in colors that are intentionally vulgar.  Georgia O'Keefe is represented by several iconic images of cow skulls, paintings devoid of any interest other than as a kind banner or pictorial equivalent of a commercial logo -- in my view, O'Keefe is consistently overrated, although she is a fine decorative painting and an ingenious inventor of "trademarks."  A couple of paintings by Reginald Marsh of garish metropolitan scenes features strangely restrained and dim color palettes -- the big paintings of urban chaos, nonetheless, are effective and eye-catching.  Ben Shahn's "Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti" gains nothing really by being seen in person other than the fact that it is a big painting, the size of one wing of a Gothic altarpiece, apparently, the reference that the artist intends.  There is an extraordinarily luminous painting by Edward Hopper in which the artist has staged a combat between the twilight and electric light bulbs illumining a rural gas station -- the picture creates a fascinating sense of peace riven through, however, with disquieting notes.  For me, the highlight of the show is a painting by Marsden Hartley, a savage-looking landscape called "Mount Katahdin, Maine, Autumn No. 2 " -- this is one of the few works in the exhibition that has painterly qualities, that is, thick application of paint, wildly different types of brushstroke and intensely expressionistic colors:  Mt. Katahdin appears as a pitch-black spike poking up above an autumnal forest that is a solid field of dense red, all of this poised above evergreen green and the acid blues of a lake distressed by the wind.  It's a remarkable landscape.  Also remarkable, and possessing some painterly qualities, is a canvas by John Steuart Curry showing feral boars ripping serpents apart -- it's some sort of all-purpose allegory, but the sheer ugliness of the composition and the painting is worthy of admiration.  This image seems similar to Grant Wood's "Death on the Ridge Road", a wildly canted picture that shows two vehicles, literally flying (wheels off the road) into a fatal collision -- again, the intent seems to be generally allegorical, but not specific to any particular calamity.  By contrast, there are a half-dozen paintings by forgotten artists, among them O. Louis Gugliemi and Peter Blume, that apply the techniques of European surrealism to political commentary -- these images are startling, particularly Gugliemi's "The Eternal City" with a profile of Mussolini, luridly colored, popping up out of a jack-in-the-box.  Probably allied to this work is a very early round-shaped canvas by Philip Guston showing a bombing raid on a city, a very effective piece of agit-prop and painted in the manner of the Italian Mannerists -- the colors look like those in Pontormo's works.  Semi-abstract works in the show, a painting by Stewart Davis and another by Charles Demuth are negligible -- the image by Davis in particular is clearly inferior to other works by this artist, including some nice paintings in the American wing of the same museum.

This exhibit remains in Chicago until September.  The show travels to the Musee d' Orsay in Paris thereafter and will be presented in London as well.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Film essay -- Wajda's "Kanal"

Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal

 

 

At age 90, Andrzej Wajda represents Polish cinema and its history in a unique way: not only have his film’s explored the history of his native land, but they have also made history. Wajda’s voice is so influential in his homeland that his 1981 film Man of Iron, featuring Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement, is widely considered to have been instrumental in freeing Poland from the Soviet bloc. Wajda has made more than 40 feature-length films, directed for TV, and adapted many of his movies into theatrical works that he has also directed. He has been a one-man film industry and his long life and career have been decisive in Polish cinema. (In 2000, Wajda represented Poland literally: for several years, he was an elected representative to the national congress.)

Wajda’s career is so complex and involves projects so remarkably varied that commentary must be either brief and cursory or book-length. From a cursory perspective, Wajda grew up in cavalry garrison, the son of a Polish military officer. Wajda describes his childhood as idyllic, a matter of exciting mock cavalry charges and parades – he says that his boyhood was reminiscent of John Ford’s cavalry movies. (The idyll ended tragically in 1940 when Wajda’s much-beloved father was interned by the Soviets and, then, slaughtered in Katyn Wood massacre – Wajda didn’t learn the truth about his father’s death until after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that is, until the mid-nineties.)

At 16, in 1942, Wajda joined the underground Armie Krajowa and fought against the Germans. (He was captured and sent to a concentration camp, a bit of bad fortune that may have inadvertently saved his life.) At the end of the war, the Soviets required that the Armie Krajowa be disbanded – Wajda’s unit laid down its weapons. However, other elements of the Armie Krajowa continued an insurgency against the Communists. Fighting continued for several years, a period during which the Communists hunted down members of the former resistance "Home Army" and either massacred them outright or sent captured guerillas to concentration camps.

In light of these dire circumstances, Wajda notes that for Poles of his generation, there was really only one subject: World War Two and its aftermath. Wajda said that Polish actors, as late as the eighties, could be divided into those who had somehow survived the war and, therefore, felt that life was a gift and a miracle (his perspective) or those, of a slightly later generation, who suffered survivor’s guilt, remorse at having missed the most important event in modern Polish history, that is, the Second World War.

After attending film school in Lodz, Wajda apprenticed with Aleksander Ford. Ford had begun his film in silent pictures, but was a prestige director and darling of the regime in the mid-fifties. (Ford went on to make the historical epic, The Knights of the Teutonic Order, the most expensive film ever made in Poland and an enormous success at the box-office. Ford controlled the Polish film industry – people that he denounced were arrested by the secret police and tortured. However, he ran afoul of the government himself while making a co-production with Israeli and German film makers about Janusz Korczak, a pediatrician who was also a hero of the Warsaw Ghetto. Ford defected, lived for a time in Denmark, and the United States, and, ultimately committed suicide in a motel in Florida in 1980.)

Wajda became famous with his first films, the so-called war trilogy comprised of A Generation (1954), Kanal (1956), and Ashes and Diamonds (1958). In the early sixties, Wajda was heavily involved in directing theater – he was at the helm of famous productions of two American plays, A Hatful of Rain (about morphine addiction) and Two for the Seesaw, a dark Romantic comedy. Throughout this period of time, Wajda directed about one film a year – these included A Siberian Lady Macbeth, Ashes, a historical epic about the Napoleonic wars, and Landscape after a Battle (1970), another picture about Polish concentration camps. He made a partial version of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, entitled Pilate and Others (1967), and, later, adapted Conrad’s The Shadow Line into a film.

In 1974, Wajda directed another historical epic, The Promised Land, about industrial development in Eastern Europe – a film that we screened a few years ago. The first of Wajda’s films about the Solidarity movement was Man of Marble (1977). This was followed by the immensely consequential Man of Iron in 1981, a film in which the leader of the movement, Lech Walesa, actually appeared. (Wajda’s last film, made in 2012, completes his Solidarity trilogy – it is called Lech Walesa: Man of Hope and is a biopic about the Solidarity leader.) Danton, a French-Polish co-production released in 1983, was also seen as an allegory about the Solidarity movement, Depardieu’s Danton represented Lech Walesa poised in conflict against Robespierre, a figure analogous to the politicians opposed to Solidarity.

In 1990, Wajda made his own film about Janusz Korczak. He adapted the last part of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into a film called Nastasja (the movie features a Japanese Onnugata actor – that is, male to female transvestite trained in Kabuki theater.) He directed a large-scale adaptation of a Polish national epic, Pan Tadeusz released in 1999 and another enormous box-office success in Wajda’s native land. (Pan Tadeusz was the second film by Wajda drawing upon the Nationalist romantic literature of the 19th century – the first was The Wedding, released in 1973, based on an important theatrical work penned just before 1900 by Stanislaus Wispianski.) Wajda’s 2002 The Revenge is similarly based on a 19th century farce that is regarded as a classic theater work in Poland. In 2007, Wajda was accorded international acclaim for his film about the Katyn Woods massacre and its nightmarish aftermath. The name of the film, not surprisingly, is Katyn.

How many massacres, atrocities, executions, and battles has Wajda staged in his films? How many revolutions has he depicted? How many protests and violent confrontations with authorities? How many heaps of corpses has he filmed?

Wajda is seven years older than Roman Polanski – in Poland’s tumultuous history, this is the equivalent of a generation. Film makers like Polanski largely defected from Poland and preferred to work abroad – notable examples are Krzsystof Kielowski, whose last four films were made in France, Jerzy Skolimowski who has worked extensively in England, and Andrzej Zulawski, who has made films in England and Hollywood. Wajda remained in Poland at the cost of certain compromises – he has been accused, from time to time, with collaborating with the same regime that his films helped to bring down.

 


The Warsaw Uprising
In some ways, it is astounding that Wajda was able to make Kanal. To understand political obstacles to the production of the film, we must know some basic facts about the Warsaw Uprising, the event the film documents.

Poland was overrun by the German Wehrmacht in 1939. The legitimate Polish government formed an government in exile and organized a resistance movement, the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa). This resistance movement harassed German occupation forces in Poland and participated in some large, if doomed, uprisings, most notably one at Lvov in 1942.

In 1943, the Germans lost the battle of Stalingrad and the Red Army began to push the Wehrmacht out of Russia. By 1944, German armies had retreated into Poland. The Polish Home Army, then, began a series of coordinated uprisings called Operation Tempest. The purpose of these uprisings was to force the Germans to fight on two fronts – against the Russians advancing from the East and against the Poles rising up to attack their garrisons and convoys at the rear. Most of the Polish uprisings were crushed by the Germans with great loss of life.

Before July 31, 1944, the Red Army had reached a point about 10 km from the center of Warsaw. The Soviet positions were to the east of the Praga district of Warsaw, the suburb on the eastern bank of the Vistula, the river that bisects Warsaw. The Polish Home Army planned a concerted uprising and attack on the German forces occupying Warsaw – the notion was that the Home Army would begin killing German soldiers, seize the bridges crossing the Vistula, and, therefore, open the path for the Red Army to cross the river and seize the center of Warsaw. The plan was sound and, although historians debate the issue, probably would have been successful if implemented as proposed.

The Uprising began at "W-hour" – that is, five a.m. on August 1, 1944. ("W" stands for wybuch – explosion, wolnosc - freedeom, and walka - fight.) About 40,000 Home Army partisans attacked the German forces and, after several days of intense fighting, captured the city center, large portions of the suburbs, and had a command position in the Prudential Tower, an 18 story building that was the second tallest skyscraper in Europe at that time. Home Army attacks in Praga had dislodged the German units from the bridges on the Vistula. Initially, the uprising seemed to be successful and had achieved its preliminary objectives.

But the Red Army did not advance. Not only did the Red Army not send its columns across the Vistula, some units withdrew from the outskirts of Warsaw and began an armored thrust toward Romania. The Polish government-in-exile pleaded with the Allies to come to the support of the beleagured Home Army. Both American and British air forces engaged in several hundred sorties dropping munitions and food to the Home Army forces, but Western allied armies were nowhere near this theater of operations and could not provide any assistance on the ground. Until declassification of Soviet documents, it was unclear why the Red Army didn’t advance into Warsaw to seize the city, particularly when the bridges were seized by Home Army forces. (Officially, the Soviet’s claimed that the Uprising began too early, before the Red Army was properly positioned to support the rebels, and that the Home Army was a proto-fascist group, possibly allied with the Nazis.) We now know definitively what was strongly believed at that time – Josef Stalin himself ordered the Red Army to stand fast and not assist the Polish resistance. Stalin understood that the Germans had lost the war at Stalingrad and that it was only a matter of time before the Reich would be defeated. Accordingly, Stalin’s objective was to clear Eastern Europe of anti-communist forces that might oppose the installation of pro-Soviet regimes in the countries formerly occupied by the Nazis – and it was known the Polish army was highly nationalistic, pro-Catholic, and anti-Communist. Stalin made the decision to allow the Germans to exterminate the Home Army in Warsaw so that the Poles would not have a force able to resist a Soviet communist regime to be installed post-war in Poland. (This mirrors the Red Army’s massacre of Polish cavalry officers, including Wajda’s father, in the Katyn Wood in 1940 – the Soviet objective was to destroy Poland’s political and military elites to assure that the Communists could seize power after the war.)

Of course, the failure of the Red Army to come to the rescue of the Polish resistance fighters was regarded as "an act of infamy" at the time. And the motives of Stalin and his Red Army were largely understood – although historical confirmation wasn’t available until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both Churchill and FDR pleaded with Stalin to support the Warsaw Uprising, but to no avail. Without the support of Red Army tanks and heavily mechanized units, the Home Army was doomed.

Beginning on August 4, Heinrich Himmler sent special brigades of SS troops into Warsaw to commenced massacres in the Ochotu and Wolu districts of the town. The SS soldiers went building to building, dragging civilians onto the streets, raping the women and girls, and, then, shooting everyone in sight. After clearing a building, it was set on fire. Somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 civilians died in these massacres. The surviving population of suburban Warsaw took to the sewers and fled underground to the Old City or to the western suburbs.

Over a million people lived in Warsaw at the time of the Uprising. Combat in a urban terrain, fought house-to-house is asymmetrical. Although the Germans had air-cover, could use Stukas to dive-bomb Polish positions, and had tanks with heavy artillery, they were largely unable to dislodge the Home Army forces from the parts of the city that they had seized. The much more lightly armed and outnumbered Home Army was able to stalemate German forces in intense fighting that lasted for weeks. Throughout the battle, the Poles expected that, at some point, the Red Army would come to their rescue.

Beginning in September, Polish commanders began to negotiate with their German counterparts for the Home Army’s surrender. Each time a negotiated settlement was in sight, rumors occurred that the Red Army was advancing and so talks were suspended. But the Red Army never actually advanced and on October 5, 1944, the Home Army surrendered. About 15,000 men were disarmed and sent to POW camps. Between five and six-thousand troops melted into the civilian population. The remaining Home Army partisans had been killed – probably about 19,000 fighters. About 150,000 civilians were dead. The Germans lost about 10,000 men killed in the fighting.

The remaining civilian population of Warsaw was deported to a large concentration camp and sorted into different groups – about 60,000 people were exterminated in death camps. The Germans were told to treat Warsaw like "another Carthage" – accordingly, the city was systematically destroyed, each building looted, and, then, either dynamited or set afire. When the Soviet Army entered Warsaw in January 1945, the city was almost entirely leveled. Less than 10% of the buildings were standing.

After the War, the Polish Home Army was denounced for "collaborating with the Fascists." The Polish Communist party announced that the Home Army was to be exterminated. Although most Home Army troops were disarmed in January 1945, some number retained their weapons and began a partisan war against the Communists. The new Polish communist regime proposed an amnesty and told the remaining belligerent elements of the Home Army that they would be pardoned for their attacks on Soviet forces and the Russian backed Polish First Army. On the basis of these promises, about 60,000 members of the Polish Army surrendered. The NKVD, Soviet secret police, in charge of these operation, promptly arrested 50,000 of these fighters, tortured and executed their leaders, and sent the captured men to Siberia where many of them died in the Gulag.

No monument was erected to the Warsaw Uprising until 1989. Indeed, the Warsaw Uprising was a subject that could not be publicly discussed for most of the Communist era in Poland – Wajda made his film in the brief interlude of political "thaw" following the death of Stalin in March 1953. By 1958, a film like Kanal could not have been made and, indeed, would have been suppressed. The only reason the film was not suppressed in Poland was that the picture won the Silver Palm at the Cannes film festival in 1957 and, therefore, was a point of national pride that could not be ignored.

On the 50th anniversary of the uprising, many international dignitaries, including the American vice-president Al Gore, traveled to Warsaw. No one from Russia or the former Soviet Union attended the remembrance ceremonies.

 

 


A poem
On his website, Wajda cites a poem about the Warsaw Uprising:


We are waiting...

We are waiting for you, red plague,

To deliver us from black death,

To be our land once torn and quartered

Salvation met with horror....

You can not harm us! The choice is yours,

You can help us, you can deliver us

Or still delay and leave us to die...

Death is not terrible; we know how to die.

But know this: from our tombstones

A victorious new Poland will be born

And you will not walk this land

You red ruler of bestial forces.
This poem was written by Jozef Szcapanksi, an officer cadet with nom de guerre "Ziutek", a soldier of the "Parasol" battalion. Wajda declares that the poem "speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

Notwithstanding the international fame of Kanal, official Polish critics derided the film as a whitewash of the Home Army. Wajda says that no one in Poland wanted to see the film. He writes on his website: "This film could not satisfy (the uprising participants and those who had lost their loved ones in Warsaw). They had licked their wounds, mourned their dead, and now they wanted to see their moral and spiritual victory and not death in the sewers."

 

 

 


A Criticism
There are obvious flaws in Kanal. First, the three zooms to close-up of the bugged-out eyes and haunted face of the composer are three too many. The composer’s madness in the sewers is a rare case of Wajda succumbing to over-explicit explanation of images that are sufficiently clear in themselves – we don’t need to be told that the sewers are a hellish inferno; that much is obvious from what we have seen. (Contrast with the heartbreaking scene of the 12 year old child soldier trying to clean out some boots as the Tiger tanks approach the barricade where he is hiding – it’s obvious, but never stated, that the boy will not live to wear these boots and that, indeed, he will surely be killed within the next five minutes.)

The romantic or love story aspects of the film seem a bit unnecessary and have a dark undertone. The blonde "good time" girl, apparently a prostitute, is an example of the kind of person who joined the resistance. In France, as shown in The Sorrow and the Pity, as well as in Poland as well, many members of the Resistance were small-time criminals, malcontents, crazies, marginal people who seized an opportunity to rebel because it was their nature to fight against all authority, no matter how constituted. The good citizens generally collaborate with occupying regimes because, of course, they have the most to lose. Wajda defines the blonde girl as sexually experienced and promiscuous. We initially are told that she smells bad – her shoes are covered with shit. And she is experienced in moving through the sewers. In fact, Wajda suggests that she is kind of sewer-dweller, the sewer is her natural habitat. This element of the film feels unduly judgmental and, even, half-crazed – because of woman is sexually promiscuous is it fair to also portray her as an experienced guide through a literal sewer?

(Some critics protest that the characters look too handsome and well-fed; the people in the movie are all obviously movie-stars – they have movie star good looks. This bothers some critics and not others.)

The principal criticism of the film is that it is profoundly depressing. Life is already tragic. Do we need further representations as to the absurdity of existence. At the outset, the narrator tells us that we seeing a "tragedy" – we are advised that none of the characters on-screen will survive the next 24 hours. Before the battle, someone says that they will fight to the last man and all be killed because "it is the Polish way." (Recall that the Poles are famous for supposedly mounting the last cavalry charge in military history, a futile and massive attack on German tanks at the beginning of World War Two, an episode that Wajda made into a film much later in his life, Lotna. Recent scholarship has shown that this cavalry charge did not occur – a group of Polish cavalry ran afoul of German infantry, many horses were killed, and, later, when German panzers moved into the area, the carcasses of the dead horses were misintepreted.) Within the first two minutes, we know how the film will play out – there is no suspense of any kind. Tragedy is supposed to inspire in us "pity and terror" – but what if we only feel "disgust and shame?" After all, the Warsaw Uprising was an abject defeat and, in some ways, the film drags the memory of the Home Army literally through excrement – in fact, as I argue below, the sewers represent the psychic landscape of defeat and humiliation. Is this, in a way, too much to ask an audience to bear?

Marcel Martin in March 1958 wrote in Cinema:

"...the illusory symbol of freedom...nonetheless involves the immediate presence of death. Having said this – and words do not suffice to express the full intensity of the drama – one must ask: can the viewer really participate in a film in which the horror reaches such unimaginable heights? And the horror and pity aroused by the misfortunes of the characters, are they ends in themselves, since no relief, no hope is offered in the conclusion?"

In other words, should a film induce despair in its viewers?

 

 


Character names
In Kanal, as in the actual Warsaw Uprising, Home Army members were not known to one another by their real names. This was to avoid family members being killed or tortured in reprisal for attacks committed by Home Army members who might be captured by the enemy. The following characters are among the 43 troops that we see fighting in Kanal:

Zadra – treason (or, more likely, something like "curmudgeon")

Kula – bullet

Mady – wise

Smukly – slim

Korab – caravel (a kind of boat)

Stokrotha – daisy

 

 


Production Notes
Jerzy Stawinski was a member of KADR, the Polish writer’s union. Stawinski wrote a novella called Kanal about the last gasps of the Warsaw Uprising. (Stawinski had been a commander of a Home Army unit in the Warsaw Uprising.) With the Polish novelist, Tadeusz Konwicki (the writer of A Minor Apocalypse, a book that we read in the group), Stawinski adapted the story into a screenplay. Andrezj Munk, a well-known director, expressed an interest in the screenplay. Munk was a documentary film maker, used to shooting with natural light on location. With a couple technicians, he crawled down into the Warsaw sewers, emerged in a few minutes, and said: "It’s pitch-dark down there and very cramped – there’s no way to shoot a movie in a sewer." He abandoned the project. At that time, Wajda was working as Munk’s assistant. He decided he would try his hand at making the movie. The film was his second, after A Generation, also a picture about the last days of World War II.

Wajda, who was often willing to pay lip-service to the party-line, pitched the film as a movie critical of the Home Army. He told the State film production censors that the movie would show the errors made by the Home Army. At the time, the official stance was that the Home Army’s uprising had resulted in nothing other than the destruction of Warsaw, the murder of its civilian population, and the slaughter of Poland’s intellectual elite – the Poles should have been patient and waited for Marxist-Leninist destiny, in the form of the Red Army, to roll in to liberate Poland. With this understanding of the production, the project was green-lighted. Wajda began shooting the exterior war scenes in ruins that remained in the suburbs of Warsaw. The rather baroque, bourgeois house that shelters the Home Army rebels in the film’s first half-hour was built from scratch on the site. The night scene in which tracers fill the dark sky was shot with live ammunition on a couple hectares of set roped off from the public – everyone recalls the sequence as being very frightening to film.

While the exteriors were being filmed, Wajda had an elaborate studio set built to simulate the sewers. The set was brilliantly lit. In his comments on the film, Wajda observes that there is nothing naturalistic about the lighting in the sewers – the wet brick and sludge scintillate with indirect light. Far from shooting in darkness, Wajda simply filmed wet black surfaces with bright light. The sewer set is, in fact, an expressionistic triumph of design and carefully placed lighting.

The final scene, in which Zadra, descends into the sewer again, he pistol defiantly (if hopelessly) pointed at the sky, was shot in Warsaw’s Old City. In 1955 and 1956, the Old City had not yet been rebuilt and remained in ruins.

Polish audiences were uninterested in revisiting the calamity of the Warsaw Uprising. The film’s nihilism was heavily criticized. At the Cannes Film Festival, the movie was highly regarded and awarded a prize. (The other important film shown at the 1957 Cannes film festival was Bergman’s The Seventh Seal). Kanal’s fame at Cannes won the film some grudging admiration and emboldened Wajda to make the politically controversial Ashes and Diamonds (1958) about the last day of the war and the conflict between the Communists and the Home Army. At Cannes, several Hollywood film executives approached Jerzy Stawinski, lavishly praising him for his imaginative concept – "we love the metaphor of the sewers," the Hollywood executives said. Stawinski was bemused. Of course, to him, the sewers had not been a metaphor at all.

 


PTSD

In the opening exterior scenes, the influence of Roberto Rossellini in films like Rome Open City and Paisan, is clear – indeed, several sequences in Kanal seem to be modeled on similar sequences in Paisan, particularly the uncompromising final narrative in that film showing the slaughter of the Po River partisans. The style of film making is fluid – one of the opening scenes features a four-minute track through rubble as the Home Army troops scuttle through ruins to the smashed mansion. Wajda shows us that the partisans are trapped by a simple device: we see the soldiers ducking behind walls thereby establishing the position of enemy snipers hidden in the wreckage somewhere beyond those walls; but when the first fusillade of fire occurs, the shots are fired from behind the camera – this surprises us and shows that the enemy surrounds the protagonists.

Poland has been a great showcase and theater for the baroque both in architecture and literature. The mansion is a baroque labyrinth, a kind of mini-cosmos that contains all remnants of the civilization destroyed in the war. Tracking or moving shots in the mansion tend to be subtended between half-shattered mirrors – the environment is tricky with spaces within spaces, odd niches, reflections, a coat of armor, and elaborate, ancient-looking furniture. The mansion suggests an intricate stage-set, a kind of bonfire of the vanities. Of course, there is an ill-tuned piano and a folio of reproductions from Botticelli. The grounds of the mansion, its destroyed garden, are covered with fallen and ravaged books. (Later, at the very end of the film, a ream of startling white paper, like the wings of a dove, will blow across the courtyard where Zadra guns down the sole survivor of his platoon.) War, of course, is the enemy of art and truth – war destroys books, burns records, and leaves archives strewn across shattered landscapes. With this motif, Wajda shows us that the Uprising is not only being crushed by the Germans, but, also, that its existence is being erased forever.

The battle around the house is shot entirely from the perspective of the Polish defenders. At no point in the film do we see anything from the perspective of the Germans. The attacking Germans, quite sensibly have no desire to be killed and so they keep their distance from Home Army position. They prefer to shell the place, dive-bomb at it, and, then, send in the Goliath tracked (self-propelled) mines. The Goliath is a kind of motorized bomb, sent into positions held by entrenched enemies to blow them up. (As we see, the bomb runs off an extension cord.) It is well to observe how Wajda denies the audience the conventional pleasures of a war movie. War movies usually involve large-scale scenes of armies moving into action – there is the panoply of battle spectacular with explosions, flags, and vast movements of men and equipment, the pleasure of seeing a cast of thousands deployed on the screen. Wajda provides us with nothing of this kind. Clearly, he is capable of, and has the resources to stage a huge and spectacular crowd scene – this is established by the very complex and densely choreographed sequence in the courtyard crowded with panicked civilians and soldiers under attack by advancing German "Tiger" tanks. But Wajda is not interested in providing us with any kind of spectacle that we can enjoy – the scenes of combat involve small units of men creeping like rats through wreckage. The only big and spectacular war scene in the film involves helpless civilians and retreating soldiers under fire by an implacable enemy.

Similarly, Wajda denies us the pleasure of seeing the brutal enemy suffer for his cruelty. We learn that the Germans are burning Polish families alive. One of the Polish soldiers says: "We’ll make them bleed" in anticipation of a frontal assault. But there is no frontal assault – instead of storming the barricades the Germans use mechanized equipment in the attack and, so far, as we can see no German soldier is killed or injured. In the last half of the film, there are very few Germans even on display. As far as I can determine, Wajda’s film does not show a single German casualty – the only people "bleeding" are Poles. (Compare this to Spielberg’s nasty Saving Private Ryan in which the last forty minutes of the film is devoted to a John Wayne-style slaughter of German troops – the Germans are like Apaches in old Westerns: they seem to want to die and are mowed down in the hundreds by our plucky American soldiers.)

Once the action descends into the inferno of the sewers, the film becomes highly stylized and, indeed, intensely baroque: in a perverse way, the Hollywood executives were right – what occurs in the last half of the film seems unavoidably metaphoric. The sewers are a literal labyrinth. They seem more a state of mind than a real place. In the sewers, everyone is obscurely panicked – people run back and forth shouting that the Germans have filled the sewers with gas. Clearly, this is untrue – and, although there may, in fact, be bad fumes in the sewers, it’s not clear that these have the capability to kill anyone. Sounds are weirdly amplified in the sewers and, when we encounter the first checkpoint barricade, the men surrounding it seem to be already dead – they stand motionlessly by the debris blocking the sewer, like specters. The dying lieutenant half-drowned in the sewage and howling like an animal is like something glimpsed in a nightmare. Immediately, the platoon collapses into three groups that never rejoin one another. Once you have entered the sewer, it seems that you are doomed to remain there forever. The motions and gestures of the troops caught in the sewer become increasingly expressionistic – people are shown groping in the darkness, crawling, dragging one another forward as if moving against hurricane-force winds, groups of soldiers appear as statuesque friezes of the damned in Hell.

This imagery can be understood in several ways. First, it is a truism that the experience and historical meaning of World War Two is very different in a place like Poland or Estonia than it is in America (or even England). In America, we imagine World War Two as a great crusade in which virtue triumphed over absolute evil. This has been the propaganda disseminated in our movies and, even, history books. Politicians still refer to the Second World War as the "good war." But, of course, no war is good on any level. And, if you are Pole or an Estonian, it is not at all certain that "the Good Guys" won the war. The defeat of the Germans in Poland was followed by 45 years of savage repression, concentration camps, arbitrary arrest and torture, and economic malaise. One vicious totalitarian regime was succeeded by another. In this light, it is very difficult to argue that the heroism and sacrifice of the soldiers and civilians who died in the Warsaw Uprising had any value at all – in fact, the slaughter was an exercise in futility.

On this basis, we can interpret the sewer as an image for post-war Poland. After the fighting in the sunlight, a damaged and terrified group of people, some of them wounded, descend into a nightmarish labyrinth. The atmosphere is literally choking. The darkness is all-encompassing and there is no way out. No one comes to your rescue. You die in the darkness, the "darkness at noon" of the police state. It is no accident that the most clearly visualized killing in the film is one Pole shooting another. We never see any Pole successfully kill a German, but the last act of violence in the movie, a murder that presages the savage darkness of Ashes and Diamonds is Zadra pointlessly killing the last survivor of his battalion. The image of one Pole killing another Pole in the ruins of a city is an apt metaphor for post-War communist Poland.

There is another interpretation that may be more relevant to us. We now recognize that, in the wake of war, there is enormous psychic disturbance. We may interpret the sewers as an objective correlative for post-traumatic stress disorder. In the sewers, the Germans aren’t killing the Poles. The rather the Polish fighters are trapped in a blackness that leads them literally to suicide – for instance, the Polish girl who shoots herself when the man with whom she was sleeping declares that he must survive the ordeal so he can return to his wife and child. The warrior who has returned from battle finds himself in an uncomprehending society, cut off, and cast into darkness – there seems to be no way out and depression gnaws relentlessly at the sense of self. Topographically, the sewer is an interior, an inside, in which the characters are entrapped – there is an eerie sense in Kanal that the last half of the movie is a dream, a nightmare occurring within someone’s disturbed sleep. Years later, Wajda made a film called Landscape after a Battle – in my view, we can productively view Kanals second half as a psychic "landscape after battle," the spiritual darkness, confusion, and alienation that descends upon soldiers after the killing and dying has ended.

 


And Yet
As if in recognition that the story of the Warsaw Uprising is too terrible to be esthetically enjoyed, Criterion includes on its disc a long interview conducted in 2004 between Wajda and another old man, Jan Nowak Jezioranski. The interview primarily involves historical issues and ends with a kind of defense of the Warsaw Uprising. Jezioranski was a courier during the Warsaw Uprising and later an official in the Polish delegation to the United States.

Jezioranski makes the point that the Warsaw Uprising was historically consequential in three ways. First, the Red Army paused for 63 days during its inexorable advance into Germany. This allowed the Allies to advance through Europe thrusting deep into Germany from the West. As a result, the Red Army was not able to claim all of Berlin. In fact, Berlin had to be divided between the allied occupying forces. In Jezioranski’s view, the Warsaw Uprising, paradoxically, saved Germany. If all of Germany had fallen to the Soviet army, West Germany would not have existed and the entire German nation would have been a satellite to Moscow.

Second, Jezioranski says that the horrific memories of the Warsaw Uprising prevented the Poles from joining the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union in 1956. If the Poles had risen with the Hungarians, they would have been similarly crushed and would have suffered another calamitous defeat.

Finally, Jezioranski says that the Poles learned from the Warsaw Uprising that violence only begets more violence and that revolution is best accomplished by civil disobedience and not armed force. This understanding led to the Poles adopting non-violent means during the Solidarity period and, ultimately, liberating themselves from Moscow without an enormous loss of life.